Spasms of thought
If there’s one young band that deserves comparison with Talking Heads, it’s Foals. Just like David Byrne’s legendary group, this British five-piece skilfully blends leftfield styles such as post punk, disco funk and math rock with soaring indie-pop melodies. Following the success of 2013’s Holy Fire, which peaked at number two in the UK and topped the Australian album charts, the band have unveiled the follow-up, What Went Down, with a heavier, guitar-driven element added to the mix. Here, 29-year-old frontman Yannis Philippakis reveals details about the band’s song writing process and more.
THE RED BULLETIN: The album opens with the line ‘I buried my heart in the hole in the ground’. Would it be fair to interpret it as a mission statement regarding the intuitively driven lyrics on the new record?
YANNIS PHILIPPAKIS: I guess so, yes. On the last record I was interested in telling a more direct story. There was a lot more consciousness in the writing in order to make the lyrics more direct and confessional. On the new album I tried to capture the spasms of thoughts, where utterances come out of the void.
How did you manage to do so?
When you fall asleep there’s a period when your brain starts to churn out strange thoughts. I got into the habit of waking myself up to write these thoughts down, so that I won’t forget them. The next day I’d survey some of the material. Some of it’d be nonsense, but some of the thoughts were strangely profound.
What do you mean by that?
I feel it’s a view into oneself that usually remains hidden. The types of things I’d write in those moments felt almost like from a different self. These things set out the parameter for how I’d write the lyrics on this record. My goal was to leave these thoughts untouched because it’s sort of a primal communication that comes from a place inside me that I’m not aware of. But it’s also truly who I am.
You recorded the album in the French town of Saint-Remy-de Provence, where painter Van Gogh spent time in a psychiatric ward after famously cutting off his ear. How come?
Yes, we even did a day trip to the town where he actually chopped his ear off. We did a bit of Van Gogh tourism, but it wasn’t a deciding factor to why we went there.
Was there something inspiring you found out about Van Gogh on that day trip?
He’s great. I guess the extremes he went to and his dedication to his craft is something that any artist should take inspiration from. It was nice to be in the same physical environment as him. The other thing that was inspirational about being there was the nature. It was still winter when we got there and then we saw the whole of Provence erupt into spring. It’s quite a violent seasonal change there. That burst of energy when you see it physically around you, and you remember the environment as being shorn of any greenery and then it’s full of nature. There was something encouraging and motivating about seeing growth as you’re building a record.
I was quite impressed by the heaviness of the album’s first single What Went Down.
Some of it was informed when we wrote Inhaler on our last album Holy Fire. There’d been a membrane there that we hadn’t crossed into heavier, more visceral types of rock music. And once we broke through that with Inhaler it was only logical to explore it further. When we played live we noticed the physical power of a song like Inhaler and we were craving more moments like that in our live set. I remember getting into the last show and feeling like, it’d be nice if there was another song that was as intense or if not kind of more. It feels good.
In an interview from 2013 you said: “I’d rather somebody stole the record on vinyl than bought it or streamed it on Spotify.” How do you see the current situation with Tidal and Apple Music becoming increasingly popular? Have streaming services won the battle?
Probably, yeah. Streaming, it feels like it’s the future of the way music is disseminated and consumed on a mass scale. There’ll always be people buying vinyl, which is great, but from what I understand, Apple’s intention in the long run is to get rid of the old iTunes store. So when you have the biggest retailer that’s essentially morphing into a streaming service, there is a kind of inevitability to it.
As a band, is there something you can do about that development?
It’s tricky because streaming services buy a catalogue off big record companies like Warner Bros., and I don’t have a say whether we’re on it or not. But I still stand by what I said. I don’t think it’s a business model that values or nourishes the artists. It’s something that I’m looking to rectify in the future if I can.
The band’s fourth studio album What Went Down (Transgressive / Warner Bros.) is out now foals.co.uk